Manila embarks on ‘name and shame’ strategy to counter Beijing

BenarNews and RFA staffs
Manila embarks on ‘name and shame’ strategy to counter Beijing A Philippine Coast Guard member holds on to a rubber fender as a China Coast Guard ship and suspected Chinese militia ship chase the BRP Cabra while approaching Second Thomas Shoal, Nov. 10, 2023.
Joeal Calupitan/AP

The Philippine campaign to cast a spotlight on China’s presence and aggressive maritime behavior in Manila’s exclusive economic zone is succeeding, and has not been met with reprisals from Beijing thus far, analysts and officials said.

Manila has been inviting journalists when it runs resupply missions to a naval outpost in the South China Sea, resulting in regular media reports of standoffs with the Chinese ships. Those reports have included footage of swarming by Chinese ships, the use of water cannon against Philippine ships and even a minor collision at sea.

Ray Powell, a maritime analyst with the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation at Stanford University, has dubbed the tactic “assertive transparency.”

“Assertive transparency describes the tactic of deliberately seeking out the dark spaces where gray-zone actors conduct their illegal, malign and coercive acts, and then exposing them to public view,” Powell said.

Gray zone activities are generally not explicit acts of war but can be harmful to a nation’s security. In gray zone situations, China has been utilizing the coast guard and its maritime militia “to manage the intensity of disputes so they do not lead to armed conflict, and to exert pressure on adversaries, thereby gradually expanding China’s rights and interests,” according to a report published this year by Japan’s National Institute of Defense Studies.

Manila’s answer was to embark on a campaign of assertive transparency, or – as Philippine officials put it – a transparency initiative, which “has proved to be a game-changer,” according to Powell.

Another analyst, Collin Koh from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, said the Philippines’ open publicizing of maritime incidents with China and calling out Chinese aggression or intimidation “has not been observed before in Southeast Asia.”

“Manila’s new ‘name and shame’ strategy does appear to have put Beijing on the back foot, perhaps due to the element of surprise more than anything else,” Koh wrote in Fulcrum, an analysis website of the research center ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, also in Singapore.

The analyst noted that so far, this strategy has not met with backlash nor has there been any indication of coercive economic reprisals from China.

Koh argued that China “probably does not want to cast itself as an increasingly less reliable and therefore unattractive trade and investment partner.”

“Moreover, if China desires to uphold its image as a proponent of common development in the Global South and a strong supporter of economic integration, weaponizing trade and investment against the Philippines may be foolhardy.”

Keep pushing for transparency

A Philippine Coast Guard spokesman called the initiative effective.

“When we started publicizing these things happening in the West Philippine Sea … every time there is [China’s] swarming and we publicize it, we can expect the Chinese government to pull out those Chinese maritime militia ships regardless of locations,” spokesman Commodore Jay Tarriela told local radio station DZBB. 

The West Philippine Sea is Manila’s name for the South China Sea territory and waters within its jurisdiction.

“We did that in Sabina Shoal, we did that in Iroquois Reef and now we have been doing that in Julian Felipe,” the spokesman said. 

Julian Felipe Reef, internationally known as Whitsun Reef, is another disputed feature in the South China Sea where the Philippine Coast Guard spotted more than 100 Chinese maritime militia ships over the weekend.

“The total number of ships was 135 when we publicized it, but a few days later this number went down to 28. We are still hoping that they will leave in the next coming days,” Tarriela said, “We’ll keep on pushing for transparency, telling the world that the Chinese maritime militia are still occupying our exclusive economic zone [EEZ].”

An EEZ gives a state exclusive access to the natural resources in the waters and seabed.

08 PH-assertive-2.jpg
The Philippines’ BRP Jose Rizal, foreground, and the USS Gabrielle Giffords participate in a tactical exercise. Nov. 23, 2023. [Armed Forces of the Philippines via AP]

Manila’s strategy has received praise from some of its neighbors. 

“The Philippine policy is very good and timely,” said Aristyo Rizka Darmawan, a senior researcher at the Center for Sustainable Ocean Policy at the University of Indonesia.

He said that by publicly sharing information about incidents in the sea, the Philippines could rally support from other countries and pressure China to stop its aggressive actions and abide by international law. 

“I personally think Indonesia should have a similar policy of openly protesting or responding to China,” the researcher told BenarNews. 

Andreas Aditya Salim, co-founder of the Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative, Jakarta-based think tank, agreed that transparency is good.

“However, I don’t think other countries can or are willing to adopt that approach. Indonesia, for example, has a ‘no megaphone diplomacy’ approach.”

A Malaysian analyst, meanwhile, questioned the Philippine government’s sincerity.

“The concept of the Philippines making or reframing ‘us vs. them’ to one of ‘right vs. wrong’ is just a mirage,” said Fuad Mat Noor, a defense analyst and private consultant for the Malaysian government.

“I think Malaysia will stick to its defense policy as stated in its Defense White Paper which stated ‘The South China Sea should be a platform for cooperation and connectivity, not an area of confrontation or conflict area, which is in line with the spirit of Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality,’” he said.

New name for old approach?

Another neighbor and South China Sea claimant – Vietnam – may have played the assertive transparency card before, a Vietnamese researcher said.

“Basically it is a new name for some old tactics – ‘naming and shaming’ is one of them,” said Nguyen The Phuong, who is studying for a doctorate in maritime security and naval affairs at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia.

“Vietnam did employ this approach, for example in the so-called HD981 incident, when Hanoi allowed journalists to the site of the dispute to report on what was happening,” said Phuong, “It was also assertive transparency.”

08 PH-assertive-3.jpg
A group of Vietnamese protest outside the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi against Beijing’s deployment of an oil rig in South China Sea contested waters, May 11, 2014. [Chris Brummitt/AP]

The incident, dubbed the 2014 China-Vietnam oil rig crisis, erupted after China moved its oil platform Hai Yang Shi You 981 (known as HD981 in Vietnam) into the waters near Vietnam’s coast. 

Hanoi has always maintained backdoor channels in dealing with Beijing, including the relationship between the two ruling communist parties that can serve as “an important mechanism for de-escalation,” he said.

Manila has backing from its ally the United States, which constitutes “a significant factor but could also lead toward further escalation,” he said.

The U.S. repeatedly has said Article IV of the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty “extends to armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, and aircraft – including those of its Coast Guard – anywhere in the South China Sea.” 

Jason Gutierrez in Manila, Pizaro Gozali Idrus in Jakarta, Iman Muttaqin Yusof in Kuala Lumpur and Radio Free Asia, a news service affiliated with BenarNews, contributed to this report.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.